Tara Patel, Analyst
With decreasing alumni participation rates and fewer dollars coming in from new alumni donors, institutions must find other populations to fill their giving gaps. Many institutions are looking at parents for the answer.
The data tells us there is a lot of potential here. Between 2000 and 2010, parent giving to higher education increased 49%.
Still, most institutions struggle to unlock that potential and see disappointing returns from outreach to parents.
The problem is that most schools do too little, too late and use a one-size-fit-all approach. Mass engagement strategies and mass solicitations consume a lot of resources without producing very good returns. Most parents won’t give beyond the tuition they already pay, and parents with the capacity and inclination to give large gifts seldom do so in response to direct mail or telemarketing.
When fundraising staff focus on these broad efforts, they can’t effectively cultivate the small handful of parents who might actually be able to give those five-, six-, or seven-figure gifts.
In addition, the lifecycle of high-potential parent prospects follows a very different trajectory than that of the high-potential alumni donors on whom your current major gift strategy focuses. Alumni donors are cultivated across years and even decades; their willingness and capacity to give typically grows with time.
With parents, by contrast, you have a much smaller window of time. Parents’ interest peaks in their child’s first year of school and more or less evaporates after graduation.
The good news is that many high-potential parent donors are “primed” for philanthropy: past giving to private secondary schools and other charities has set their expectations about support. As one director of parent and family giving explained, “Some parents have been supporting their children for all their lives … If we are not asking them for a gift, they are thinking that either they are not doing something right or the university is not doing something right.”
While institutions can cultivate large gifts from high-net-worth parents, there are four key steps to making these efforts succeed.
Four Key Lessons for Maximizing Parent Giving
1. Acquire top parent prospects early
To capitalize on the window of opportunity, institutions need to systematically collect parent information, sift out the best prospects through qualification, and use targeted, high-touch solicitations to acquire top parents.
Institutions taking this approach circumvent legal hurdles and resistance to information-sharing from campus units by employing initiatives that range from strategies accomplished within the advancement shop to those that require leveraging partnerships with other campus units, such as the enrollment management function.
To qualify parents, forward-thinking institutions use existing resources such as parent council volunteers to conduct soft qualification calls. Alternatively, they carefully track and gather information from parent responses to mass solicitations, and focus their future, high-touch cultivation on the best prospects.
Finally, institutions such as the University of Virginia use segmented asks that map to capacity to acquire top parents early and at a high giving level.
2. Empower frontline fundraiser with resources focused on parents
Set you major gifts team up for success by providing training on parent cultivation. Often when major gift officers do connect with high-potential parent prospects, they often lack the tools and training to cultivate them effectively. Frontline fundraisers in higher education have been trained on how to speak with and cultivate alumni, but not with parents. They are unfamiliar with parents’ interests and how to engage them effectively on a shorter cultivation timeline.
Senior capstone gifts are only likely if the idea of such a gift has been introduced in their child’s first year and explored with a development officer in subsequent years.
To introduce parents to a trajectory of giving culminating in a senior capstone gift, Dartmouth College created a brochure on “The Arc of Family Giving.” Given to parents when their child begins college, the document outlines a range of giving opportunities appealing to diverse parent interests, including a capstone gift in their child’s senior year.
Fundraisers use the brochure to begin personalized conversations about giving with parents at the start of the first academic year and to sustain those conversations through graduation.
3. Share major gift roadmap early.
For most parent prospects, the largest gift opportunity is a capstone gift given in their child’s senior year. At this point, parents have seen the tremendous impact of the school on their child’s personal and intellectual growth, they’ve (ideally) been cultivated for four years, and they have meaningful engagement experiences on campus, such as attending organization award events and commencement activities.
Nearly all of the institutions included in the Community College Customer Service Audits white paper demonstrated room for improvement in their financial aid operations; Forum researchers noted that information shared with new applicants about their financial aid options is often confusing and incomplete, and long wait-times compound student frustration. Because financial concerns are the primary drivers of attrition, college leaders must direct institutional attention to streamline and improve financial aid services for incoming students.
4. Involve students in giving
Some institutions shy away from parent giving because they think of it as a four-year transaction. But, parent philanthropy has long-term impact since parent giving substantially affects young alumni giving. Forward-thinking institutions bring students into the gift process by asking parents to make gifts in honor of their child or in collaboration with their child.
Georgia Tech has been experimenting with both of these strategies.
Through their recently launched parent/family endowment effort, they first solicit their very top parent donors for a $30,000 unrestricted endowment. Then, typically around graduation, they bring the student into the conversation and work with the student and parent to reflect on the past year and determine where to allocate that gift.
The director of parent giving says that "parents really like that students are involved. It’s actually a part of the selling process to parents."
Want to learn more?
Watch our on-demand presention to learn strategies for qualifying and soliciting top parent donors early so that they are strongly positioned to make major gifts.